County close to a deal for Smith farm But the price tag may top $8 million, Ecker says

'I'm very optimistic'

Howard seeks up to $1 million more from the state

March 19, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday the county is close to a deal to buy the 300-acre Smith farm, but it may cost more than the initial $8 million estimate.

"They are willing to sell to the county, if we can agree on price," Ecker said. "We are in negotiations with the heirs, and I'm very optimistic and hopeful."

Last month, Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised $4 million from open-space program funds to match county money to buy the land. But that amount seems to be insufficient. "I think it's going to cost more than $8 million to get it," said County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who represents east Columbia. "We want to be fully prepared to get it."

Ecker and Gray said they have asked the governor for up to $1 million more to buy the property, which straddles Route 175. Ecker said the county would provide up to $1 million to match additional state funds.

"There will be a limit on what we can pay for it, but it is a prime piece of property," Ecker said.

Last July, the heirs paid for an assessment indicating the property is worth $8 million. Two assessments paid for by the county last month showed the land is worth $9.7 million or $10.7 million, said Gary Arthur, head of the county's Recreation and Parks Department. "[Ecker] is making the negotiations with the heirs based on these estimates," Arthur said.

The county would develop the land over the next four years into a park with soccer fields, walking trails and nature areas, Ecker said.

Gray said the governor indicated he would find the money to help pay for the property. Ecker said he expects to complete the deal within the next three to four weeks.

Richard Talkin, a Columbia attorney who is overseeing the talks for the two heirs -- Carolyn Smith of Baltimore and Tabi Williamson of Eureka, Calif. -- said yesterday, "All I can say is we are in negotiations."

County zoning officials say at least half a dozen large developers have asked about submitting development plans for the parcel since the property's owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, died more than a year ago.

Rezoning would be crucial to any development plans. Under Nancy Smith's ownership, the land remained zoned for agriculture.

Getting the zoning changed to residential would be a challenge, some say, because residents in the surrounding Columbia villages of Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Long Reach would oppose it.

For many community leaders and area residents who do not want to see development of the property, which is less than a mile from Columbia's Town Center, the intense negotiations are encouraging.

"I would be delighted if the county gets it," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a Columbia Council member from Long Reach. "It would be wonderful for the current residents to have the opportunity to preserve it for public use rather than put more houses in there."

Wanda Hurt, a Columbia Council member from Owen Brown, said she would consider introducing a proposal to the council, which oversees the Columbia Association's current $49 million budget, for CA to pay $1 million to help purchase the land. But some council members have said that because the park would be not be a CA-run facility, they would oppose helping to pay for it.

"This is good news to hear that the county is this close to getting it," Hurt said. "Until the paperwork is signed, I will be worried that [the heirs] may hold out for the highest bidders."

County officials, preservationists and developers have been trying to acquire the parcel. Smith, who never married and had children, died without a will, leaving the fate of her land unclear. The reclusive woman vehemently fought developers, including Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., preservationists and politicians who tried to get her land.

In the mid-1970s when the state condemned 14 acres of her property for the four-lane Route 175, she refused to cash a $148,000 state check.

For months, Ecker has been negotiating with Talkin. According to the 1939 will of Smith's father, Henry E. Smith, the land is to revert to his closest surviving relatives, if his daughter and wife made no provisions for it. Nancy's mother, Lillian, who died in 1979, left the land in the hands of her daughter, Nancy.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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